system began nearly 170 years ago. At
the time, Iowa
was a sparsely settled wilderness with most of its people living along the Mississippi River Valley.
Our court system was simple, consisting of a few justices-of-the-peace
and three judges who presided over both trials and appeals.
Congress enacted legislation on June 12, 1838, that formed the Territorial
Government of Iowa, dividing it from the Territory of Wisconsin.
Among other things, the Act established a
supreme court, probate courts, district courts, and justices of the peace. Congress
vested the territorial courts with the same jurisdiction in all cases under the
Constitution and laws of the United
States as exercised by federal courts.
Iowa's First Judges
The first Iowa Supreme Court consisted of a chief justice and two
associate justices who served four-year terms and were appointed by the President
of the United States,
who was at the time, President Martin Van Buren. The justices also served as district judges,
each serving one of the territories three judicial districts.
Mason served as the first Chief Justice from 1838 until he resigned in June
1847. Born in 1804 in the State of New York,
Mason graduated from West Point Military Academy
in 1829 and remained there to teach, until he was admitted to the New York bar. Justice
Mason died in Burlington,
February 22, 1882.
Justice Charles Mason
first two associate justices were Joseph Williams and Thomas S. Wilson.
Williams was born in 1801 in Pennsylvania,
studied law in the office of Chauncy Forward, and was
eventually admitted to the Pennsylvania
bar. During his long career as a judge, he presided over courts in Iowa, Kansas, and Tennessee. Justice
Williams died at Fort Scott,
Kansas in 1870.
S. Wilson was born in Ohio in 1813 and studied
at Jefferson College
Later in his career, he campaigned to be the first United States Senator from Iowa, but missed
election by just one vote. Justice Wilson died in Dubuque in 1894.
Justice Thomas S. Wilson
In 1839, during its first sessions, the Iowa Supreme Court
published ten cases. Notably, its first
decision, In the Matter of Ralph, which is discussed in more detail
later in this article, involved the question of slavery. The remaining cases, however, are much less memorable. These cases involved a variety of contract
disputes and the court's rulings were primarily confined to questions of
the Union as the twenty-ninth state in 1846.
The Iowa Constitution of 1846 divided the powers of the government into three
separate "departments" —the legislative, the executive, and the
judicial. Supreme court justices were elected to six-year terms by a joint vote
of both houses of the general assembly and had supervisory control over all
lower tribunals in the state.
During the fist legislative session, the General Assembly divided
the state into four judicial districts.
The legislature also provided for district judges to be popularly
elected for five year terms.
The Iowa Constitution of 1857 endures to the present day. Consistent with the previous constitution, it
vested judicial power in the supreme court, district courts, and such lower
courts as established by the general assembly. Because the state had grown and more counties
were settled, the constitution increased the number of judicial districts from
four to eleven. The constitution allowed
the general assembly to reorganize districts after 1860 and every four years
thereafter. The new constitution
provided for a three-member supreme court elected at-large by the people of Iowa for staggered terms
of six years. Trial judges continued to be elected by the people.